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From Getty Images (via RNZ)

Te Paati Maori continues to bring a breath of fresh air into the political space, moreover completely stifled by the Covid-19. His call last week for a referendum on changing the country’s name to Aotearoa by 2026 comes at the right time and is a welcome diversion from the necessarily short-term goal engendered by Covid-19.

It has always seemed incongruous that our country bears the name given to it by a Dutch explorer who spent less than three weeks off our coasts without ever landing here 479 years ago. Although there may no doubt be a legitimate debate as to whether the “naming rights” for our country should have belonged to the indigenous peoples here at the time Abel Tasman hugged our shores, or to the British colonizers. which arrived nearly two hundred years later, it is increasingly difficult to argue that Tasman’s choice has much relevance to our country as it is today.

The national flag should also change

Therefore, the proposal of a referendum to decide on the future name of the country is to be welcomed. We hope that this will trigger a full public debate on the nature of our country today and its current national identity, which various prime ministers have said for years to be inevitable, but none have had the courage to initiate.

However, changing the name of the country is not without challenges, not the least of which is the national flag. Assuming we vote to change our country’s name, the incongruity of still having a national flag containing the British Union Jack would become even greater than it is today.

So either alongside the national debate on the name change or soon after, assuming a vote for the change, there would have to be a new discussion on the design of the national flag.

Following the unsatisfactory (process and design) referendum on the change of flag in 2016, there are many lessons to be learned on how such a process could be better streamlined and structured which should be followed here.

While changing the name of the country is an idea whose time may be right, one which could receive surprisingly strong support in a referendum, the second part of Te Paati Maori’s proposal to replace all city names, European towns and neighborhoods by their more problematic and potentially divisive Maori background.

Many of these names date back to our colonial history in one way or another – either as names of settlements that did not exist before, or as place names assigned by Captain Cook on his voyage. of discovery.

Reflect the partnership

Since the Treaty of Waitangi was intended to usher in a partnership relationship between Tangata Whenua and the new settlers, something that we are still grappling with over 180 years later, this partnership must be reflected in the place names that we adopt.

In many cases, the appropriate place name from the point of view of traditional and historical significance will be the traditional Maori name, and we should have little hesitation in adopting it. But there will be other situations where the same reasons apply backwards and keeping the European name will be the most appropriate way to go. In other words, any changes to the names of towns, villages and neighborhoods should be made on a case-by-case basis, reflecting local circumstances and not forced by a national referendum.

While Te Paati Maori’s assertion that doing things this way, and not through a generalized national referendum, would reduce the likelihood of local change happening to have some merit, a general imposition of change at the local level is likely to cause unnecessary division and upheaval that would harm the overall push that Te Paati Maori is making.

It would be a great shame and would diminish the rare opportunity offered here to have a say in our nationality. Therefore, an intermediate position may be in order, allowing Maori and European place names to be used and recognized side by side until a preferred usage emerges in each case over time.

The pride of Aotearoa

For my part, as a third generation citizen of Irish descent, I would be proud to say that my country is Aotearoa. As Norman Kirk once said, all of us who live here, regardless of our origins, carry the unique and common bond of inhabiting these islands. The mix of cultures, origins and experiences, and the people who breed, is unique and something we need to celebrate around the world. What better way to do this than to proclaim our place as citizens and residents of Aotearoa?

So, hats off to Te Paati Maori for initiating this debate. While there will be passionate opinions from all sides, the challenge to our national character will be to proceed without bigotry, intolerance and division overshadowing what is an important issue for the future of our country. Te Paati Maori showed courage and commitment, but also respect for tradition, by launching the referendum proposal. The challenge now for the rest of the country is to show the same courage and respect in addressing the important issues he has raised.

Peter Dunne was Minister of the Crown under the Labor and National Governments from November 2008 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.